Saturday, August 1, 2020

First Cow: Movie Review

A subtle tale of friendship and capitalism.
Eight features in and Kelly Reichardt remains a minimalist filmmaker. This time returning to the scene of Meek’s Cutoff and the Oregon territory in the mid-1800s. First Cow is as subtle a film as one could get with still a coherent narrative, and fortunes at stake for the protagonists. While it is a slow burn, eventually the story that forms is very engaging with legitimate suspense and hope for a better future.   2019

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt

Screenplay by: Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond

Starring: John Magaro and Orion Lee

Starring John Magaro as Cookie, a cook who has been hired by a group of fur-trappers to provide them with their daily sustenance. We later learn that Cookie is a very good cook, who had been trained in the more industrial east coast, but he doesn’t seem well suited to the settler’s life. We see him catch a fish, but other than his skills at providing for the travellers seem limited. One night, a Chinese man wanders into their camp. Cookie and King-Lu (Orion Lee) strike up a conversation and Cookie offers him the bit of food he has in his tent. And then he’s off, just as mysteriously as he arrived.

When they arrive at a market, Cookie parts ways with his group. It seems to take a long time to get to the market (film time-wise), with very little happening, and at first it seems unclear how the story is going to pick up at the market. But it does. Patience pays off for both the viewer and Cookie. Cookie is reunited with his only friend King-Lu, who can offer him a place to stay in this shack he built (or claimed as his own – King-Lu’s past always remains a mystery).

The titular cow arrives at the same time Cookie does, via raft. She had a mate and calves but the other cows did not survive the trip up from San Francisco. The cow is the property of a rich man who has a house in the area and employs a variety of servants. This cow becomes very pivotal to the story of Cookie and King-Lu.

Lee is a very easy-going performer. Effortlessly adding a sense of both comfort and intrigue to the film. He provides Cookie with friendship but also a direction of what Cookie is looking for: fortune and security. Both of which are both most easily obtained with money. This is a story of how to get money. The themes of capitalism and friendship are intertwined in this enthralling story. Book-ended with scenes shot in the same location, First Cow sets up the idea of enduring friendship and letting us know the ending without explicitly telling us.

At times the cinematography is very darkly lit, one of the reasons I suspect A24 was very hesitant to move it to VOD rather than waiting out the pandemic. The beautifully photographed natural wonders of the Oregon territory are neither to be feared nor ignored. This movie is not man vs. nature, but man + man vs. money. A tale of the pursuit of capitalism that could work just as well in modern times.